Weill Recital Hall is a very good place for a recital, and it hosted one on Saturday night—a voice recital. Singing was Benjamin Appl, a baritone; playing the piano was James Baillieu. Their bios did not give their nationality. As a rule, bios don’t. They are very stingy with biographical information.
A musician’s bio lists conductors, orchestras, and cities. Conductors he has performed with, orchestras he has performed with, cities he has performed in. Zzzzz . . .
Some Googling tells me that Appl is German British and that Baillieu is South African. Is he now British too? Don’t know. Appl became a citizen in 2019. Google further discloses that Appl was the last student of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Talk about something that belongs in a bio! (Heck, I’d lead with it.)
Before Saturday night’s recital began, Appl came out with a microphone. He wanted to talk about his program. He and Baillieu talked about their program all evening long. They said what they were going to sing, and what the songs were about. Did they not know that we had all been given program booklets at the door?
Almost always, talking of this kind is not helpful, in my experience. Almost always, it is superfluous, lengthening the evening, and robbing it of some of its magic—musical magic.
I look forward to the passing of this phase, the talking phase. (It will pass, won’t it?)
Saturday night’s program had a theme, namely the night—songs having to do with the night, in its various aspects. Some performers like a theme. So do critics, administrators, and musicologists. I wonder whether the audience in general cares about a theme. Is there anything wrong with assembling some good, great, or interesting songs? I don’t think so. But I sense that performers are wary of going without a theme. It’s almost like a theme is a permission slip to sing a song recital.
Night or no night, Appl and Baillieu had assembled some good, great, or interesting songs. They came in four different languages: German, English, French, and Russian. Appl sang a song by Tchaikovsky, for which he used a card, on which the words were apparently written. No harm done.
About Mr. Appl’s singing, I will jot some generalities. He has a fine voice and obvious smarts. His diction is commendable. When he goes high, he sounds almost tenorial. When he went low on Saturday night, he was sometimes tremulous. The voice, in any register, sometimes buckled under pressure. The singer ran out of gas by the end of some phrases.
As he sang his songs, he was relatively free with phrasing—admirably free. Not square. At least one song, however, could have been straighter, less loose. That was “L’heure exquise,” the Hahn jewel.
In Schumann’s song about Belshazzar, Appl and Baillieu were full of life. They expressed the drama of the song. In William Bolcom’s “Song of Black Max”—one of his Cabaret Songs—Appl was sly (and his German accent was charming). After the Bolcom, Appl sang two English songs: one by Quilter, the other by Gurney. I thought of Janet Baker, practically with a tear in my eye.
Not because Appl was bad, mind you—he was quite good. It was simply that I was nostalgic about Dame Janet.
Maybe I could pause for a sartorial note. Benjamin Appl was sharply and unusually dressed, with a velvet double-breasted jacket (I believe—this is not my field). Also, he looks like Brad Pitt, lucky dude.
James Baillieu is a fine artistic partner. He is clearly another in a long tradition of intelligent, skillful, conscientious accompanists. And please know: “accompanist” is no pejorative in my book.
In the first song of the evening—Schubert’s “Nachtstück”—Baillieu was somewhat blunt and stiff. By Strauss’s “Ständchen,” however, he was relaxed and nimble. As he played, I thought of Godowsky’s piano arrangement of this song—a fluid, refreshing thing.
The octaves in Schubert’s “Erlkönig” stiffen many a pianist. They freeze his hands. Baillieu stayed unfrozen. In a song by James MacMillan, he pounded his fists—hard—into the keyboard. That was arresting.
A curious thing happened at the end of “Ein Traum,” the Grieg song: Baillieu hit a clinker. A wrong note. I myself would have resolved it—incorporated the right note (maybe sheepishly). Baillieu left the clinker “out there.” This had a certain integrity, which I could kind of admire.
Writing about concerts, I often say, “Life is not a studio recording—thank heaven.”
Toward the end of the evening, Benjamin Appl did some talking that I appreciated. Talking that I thought right, and helpful, and even moving. He was going to sing two songs by Ilse Weber, who was murdered at Auschwitz. He said that, “as a German-born man,” he felt he had a responsibility to such music.
He and Baillieu performed one encore—by another composer murdered at Auschwitz, Adolf Strauss. The song is “Ich weiss bestimmt, ich werd’ dich wiedersehen,” a tango. (The words mean, “I know for sure I’ll see you again.”) A couple of measures remind me, pleasantly, of “Always,” the Irving Berlin song (which is a waltz).
Baritone and pianist provided a civilized, refined evening. Song recitals seem to get fewer and fewer in our lives. Which makes some of us value them all the more.